Should champagne producers fear prosecco’s fizzier sales?

Probably not the expensive stuff.
Probably not the expensive stuff.
Image: EPA/Sergei Chirikov
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For champagne producers, this is indeed “the most wonderful time of the year.” In the run-up to Christmas and the New Year, some 90 million bottles of the sparkling wine will be sold just in the months of November and December, predicts the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), a trade association. Around 223 million bottles were sold between January and October.

But the big question this holiday season is whether champagne is losing its appeal, especially in key export markets like the UK and US. Prosecco, a less expensive Italian sparkling wine, has already shown that it can seduce with its bubbles.

A report by the consulting firm IRI early this year estimated that the value of prosecco sold in the UK—champagne’s largest export market by far—in the year to July jumped by 72%, reaching £339 million ($503 million). Champagne sales in the same period rose only by around 1%, for a total of £250 million. This marked the first time prosecco had outsold champagne by value in the country. A similar trend can also be seen in the US, where prosecco sales are growing more than four times as fast as champagne sales.

Clovis Taittinger, export director at Champagne Taittinger, thinks the popularity of prosecco isn’t a problem for champagne. He considers them two different products with two different identities.

“Champagne maintains the aspect of luxury, celebration and love that prosecco doesn’t have,” Taittinger told Quartz. “Some consumers may drink both, but that wouldn’t be the majority. The true consumer of champagne is not a consumer of prosecco. When we drink champagne, it’s a different symbol, it represents joie de vivre.”

His champagne house, a family business founded in 1734, set new records over the past five years in the UK, although he declined to provide precise figures. Taittinger said that the brand would never compete directly against prosecco or any other non-champagne product.

“We’re not going to do something anti-prosecco,” he said. “Between champagne brands, there is competition—that’s between us. We don’t define our marketing strategy with prosecco in mind.”

Although some consumers might blur the lines between sparkling wines, prosecco and champagne differ more than just in name and country of origin. While prosecco is made with Glera grapes, champagne is made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Champagne is produced through the expensive “traditional method,” involving a second fermentation in the bottle and a 15-36 month aging process. Prosecco uses the “tank method,” in which secondary fermentation takes place in a tank before the wine is bottled.

A survey by Ipsos for CIVC on sparkling-wine purchasing habits in the UK showed that about one in five consumers had cut back or stopped buying champagne altogether, and of those drinkers, about one in five had replaced champagne with prosecco. The report concluded that champagne’s high price and formal image was a weakness vis-à-vis other sparkling wines for certain wine buyers.

Joel Follet, owner of independent champagne producer Follet-Ramillon, says that champagne makers have no interest in competing on price. “It’s not by lowering the price of champagne by a few euros that will change things,” he said. “Prosecco is a different product with quality and procedures that are different from champagne.”

Even so, champagne makers aren’t resting on their laurels. Follet said the professional associations have embarked on an initiative, dubbed “Champagne 2030,” to modernize the wine’s image and give it a bit of a makeover in terms of packaging and communication.

We’re seeing too many old-style labels on champagne bottles and cartons that aren’t even marked with the producer’s name,” Follet said. “We don’t want champagne to become like a Rolls-Royce, the best but no one buys it because it’s considered old school.”